Vandal Hearts Retro-Review

I first experienced this game on the Playstation in the late 90s as a teenager. Nowadays people likely look back on the PSX similar to how early-Millennials like me look back on the Atari or Amiga — antiquated relics of a history long since past.

Vandal Hearts in my day

The original Playstation (sometimes called the PS1) influenced my upbringing considerably. It’s easy to point at the big titles — Resident Evil, Tekken, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid, all standing in the shadow of the magnanimous Final Fantasy 7. Whether FF7 was your favorite (I often hear that 9 is awesome), it’s hard to deny it’s popularity, especially with the confirmation of a remake, the hype of which seems to have died away..

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But I’m not talking about the heavyweights today, though the spotlight of this post can be easily relateable to a super effective Squaresoft title: Final Fantasy Tactics. Today we’re talking about Konami’s Vandal Hearts, a turn-based tactical RPG set in a world that I’ve always found most endearing.

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For the gamers reading this, one could describe Vandal Hearts as “if Final Fantasy Tactics had a baby with Pokemon,” without the whole “catching creatures” thing. Rather, there’s a set cast of characters of whom you have limited control in terms of class delegation, but the system in place offers what I simply think of as Simplified Final Fantasy Tactics. There’s a grid-based map and a variety of abilities to employ.

For non-gamers (and everyone else for that matter) reading this, think of it this way: rock, paper, scissors, with a few extra features.

Swordsmen kill archers, archers kill hawknights (more on them later), and hawknights kill swordsmen. Then of course you’ve got healers and mages, as well as “heavy armor” (stronger-yet-slower warriors who’re susceptible to magic attacks) and monks, who later become ninja. All in all, there aren’t really any new and innovative concepts happening here; the enemy in each turn-based battle is comprised of similar classes and it falls to you as the player to exploit any weaknesses opened. You know, tactical fighting. It’s rather good stuff. But the objectives are quite varied — not all of the levels have the requirement “Destroy all enemies,” and in some cases, attempting to do so would bring about your downfall.

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The blood sprays are especially satisfying, if over the top, and really eye-catching — something that Final Fantasy Tactics noticeably doesn’t have.

The story of this game, despite being pretty good (seeing as it’s a Japanese translation) at the time, exhibits a few predictable tropes by today’s standards, and having played it to completion twice, the dramatic reveals naturally lose their power. Yet, there are a few interesting concepts explored in this game, some of which I realize my teenager-mind had found attractive, though at the time I lacked the mental vocabulary to describe and verbalize my fascination.

First off, Vandal Hearts attempts to draw you in by pitting your heroic characters against familiar types of foes: starting off with random bandits on the first level, later uncovering nefarious schemes on part of malicious politicians in an increasingly decadent and corrupt society. Ishtaria, the country in which the majority of this game takes place, stands about one and a half decades after a brutal civil war, and to maintain order there are a lot of references to “anti-terrorism forces.”

In fact, the hero — Ash — and his companions Diego and Clint (your starting party) are members of Ishtaria’s Security Forces. This game came out in 1997, a few years after the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing in New York, and a few years before the infamous 9/11 attacks. As a barely-sentient teenager, I don’t recall feeling any awareness or sensitivity about the use of the word “terrorism” at the time, but nowadays, at an age that supposedly passes for adult, I can see how this game might have been perceived as “too soon,” or otherwise “too real.”

Yet there is a light-heartedness to the narrative that doesn’t really make you feel overly invested. Vandal Hearts isn’t all that popular (there were several lackluster sequels), yet to me there were some very interesting things that influenced my ideas on gaming, storytelling, and more recently, on magic.

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Though not necessarily from the dialog…but again, a Japanese translation, so it suffices.

We’ve talked already about the gaming experience; it’s simple and fairly straightforward, yet a well-executed strategy leaves you satisfied, like you’re actually a good commander or something. The most interesting aspect of the story is directly connected to a sort of flavor they’ve got with the magic system — and no, it isn’t a gameplay mechanic (mages/priests utilize MP just like any other RPG), but more of the running theme.

Within Vandal Hearts, they toy a little with temporal shifts and time loops — something that often is something best left untoyed. Not only do characters in various media always suffer as a result of trying to mess with space-time, but the writers about such situations tend to not really have a strong grasp on what time travel actually is, let alone its paradoxical implications.

A good example of bad time-travel logic would be Back to the Future. Great movies (some of the best) sure, but flawed. Terminator did a decent job of executing an effective time loop, and Vandal Hearts pulls off something quite similar — except it’s not backwards in time, but forwards.

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Or you could just cast caution to the wind and do whatever the heck you want. But thankfully Rick & Morty hasn’t touched on Time Travel; just interdimensional travel.

So Ash, the hero protagonist, gets sucked into a warp along with some other friends about 33% into the game, and soon find themselves stranded in some extra-temporal island, populated by various people from different eras. Architecture found there is both ancient and modern, and folks living in this “town at the end of world” seem pretty resigned to their fate as forever-lost.

Your characters encounter a mysterious figure, who turns out to be a powerful mage that had disappeared from history hundreds of years prior, and who helps Ash and the handful of friends that got sucked in there with him back to their own time. The process takes a day, but when they return, three years have passed.

Interesting.

On top of that, one character named Eleni encounters a young child, who in the endgame falls into a similar wormhole/temporal shift doorway whatever you want to call it. Eleni realizes that that child was indeed herself, and she (her younger self) would re-appear eighteen years in the past as a lost, wandering orphan. The circumstances surrounding this …

“Oh no, the little girl was our only hope, what are we gonna do now?”
“Don’t worry,” says Eleni, “that little girl was me…so I can totally do what THAT ONE THING only the little girl could do and thus carry the plot forward!”

…aren’t all that awe-inspiring, but the concept is quite interesting to me.

Lastly, mages in this game sport a number of spells that seem to fall into the category of “magic that fucks with space-time.” Contrast this with most games where schools of magic fall into strict elemental schools, often organized in symmetrical categories and familiar archetypes.

The level 1 spell that mages in Vandal Hearts possess is called Dark Star, and whether it was the intentional artistic direction of the creators to have this spell look a bit polygonal and jagged, I am unsure, but the sharding effect is rather interesting, considering the limitations of the Playstation console. Rather than hardware constraints, though, I prefer to view it as the mage temporarily ripping a hole in space-time, and that’s gotta be painful as well as visually hard to digest.

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Later, mages gain access to something called Phase Shift, that really fucks with the landscape and the minds of those assaulted. Taking into account concepts such as relativity and very objective facts (being exposed to outer space is lame, and best avoided, but if someone opens a window to the stars next to you, you’re going to feel it), a spell like Phase Shift feels like hacking reality and breaking some rules — temporarily — in order to cause some serious pain.

I may not even necessarily be affecting the physical realm, just the enemy’s perception of it, which could be enough to deal crippling damage all on its own.

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The spell itself isn’t the most powerful in the game (in fact it becomes inferior after a few levels) but again, it’s the concept that resonates with me.

So we’ve got space-time magic happening, how about the setting? Ishtaria apparently sports elements of steampunk as well, making it dear to my heart. Though air travel (by dirigible, the signature steampunk vehicle, it would seem) is unknown, there is a battle that takes place atop a speeding train. There are ships propelled by both steam engines and wind sails, and the aforementioned hawknights — fighters gifted with the ability to fly, using mechanical apparatuses that give them lift – some with primitive jet propulsion, others with Davincian wings not unlike our old pal Icarus.

Hawknights fascinate me on a conceptual level, but in-game I found little use for them.

The last thing worth mentioning is the soundtrack — I remember reading a review of Vandal Hearts many years ago describing the OST of this game as “nothing remarkable.” You won’t hear a beautifully conducted orchestral score booming from your speakers if you play this one — the synthesized melodies get recycled a few times and a few battle-themes are downright repetitive, but some of the songs actually carry an interesting tune.

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I played this as a kid and dug it. I played it again as an adult, and despite knowing what was going to happen (storywise), I found myself focused and invested. Perhaps this does not come as a surprise, coming from an experience glowing with the nostalgia effect, yet the levels are actually varied and interesting enough to keep the game fun.

Recommended.

Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

When it comes to dungeon crawlers, a genre of game involving exactly what it sounds like, most veteran gamers will think of things like Diablo or the aptly named Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of lashing together a party of people and delving into dangerous, subterranean locales is not a new concept, particularly as far as fantasy adventure is concerned.

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Whether the hero’s purpose is to seek riches, to defeat the evil found below, to gain glory for one’s self or one’s organization, to discover occult knowledge, or some other unlisted factor, the end-result in terms of this kind of game is generally the same: Descend into a cave/dungeon and survive traps, kill monsters, and bust open treasure chests. It’s a great narrative for a story and an adequate excuse for why people of different paths (like clerics and thieves) might be inclined to work together.

It’s also a valid living if ever there was one, if you ask me.

Darkest Dungeon takes this concept and blends ingredients both familiar and new, delving into an equally familiar mythos in the form of Lovecraftian homage. In terms of gameplay, there is the RogueLike element, however, that makes this stand out from other Dungeon Crawlers. That and the aforementioned homage to a Lovecraftian Horror takes the form of a very real game mechanic, which I’ll detail shortly.

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The story is pretty straight forward. An unfathomably opulant estate has long since fallen into ruin, and under it stretches labyrinthine tunnels and passages and caves. Heeding the call of your ancient relative (uncle?), you employ adventurers of varying dispositions and goals as they arrive by stagecoach every week to plumb the depths and do what adventurers do best.

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Great so we’ve got RogueLike dungeons and motley parties of adventurers bent on combating the influence of an Eldritch Abomination that has made no secret of taking residence nearby. What makes this game stand out?

In a word: Stress. This is literal in two senses.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a veteran gamer, but I’m not a novice either. There is a disclaimer at the opening of Darkest Dungeon warning the player that they *will* lose, and that their characters *will* die. The game is about making the best out of a bad situation; when I saw character flaws manifest themselves in your characters, I mean that shit can get hard, fast.

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I didn’t quite grasp the weight of this until afterward.

What makes Darkest Dungeon unique to many dungeon crawlers, but not necessarily unique to Lovecraftian-themed games, is the Stress Meter mechanic. I think it’s safe to assume that even someone who’s never played a game before in their life can grasp the following concept the same minute they first pick up a controller.

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“This is your life bar. When it reaches zero, you die. Eat food or find medkits or drink red potions to restore your health.”

Therefore, maintaining your party’s health — particularly when they’re suffering from DoTs (Damage Over Time effects) like bleeding or blight (poison) — so that they can keep on swinging is pretty much the opposite of new. Managing the stress of your party is significant for the longevity of your party, and what makes this fascinating is that this is rarely ever addressed in games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate … the list goes on.

Rarely in these games does the magnitude of the task at hand really affect the characters. Sure you’ve got life-infused characters in Dragon Age, who might express their discomfort in the form of form of emotive voice acting, or even Edward from FF4 who actually has a command option “hide,” something with about as much use as passing on your turn.

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Edward was memorable for a multitude of things in FF4, but being a useful fighter was not one of them.

But these things don’t usually affect both the character and the story except in the form of scripted sequences; of COURSE Edward has the Hide option; the story dictates that his character is a coward. Darkest Dungeon takes this in a different direction — people don’t become fearful because the writers dictated it as such, but because of the unforseeable things that happen *to* them in your randomized dungeon runs. Quirks such as nervousness or anxiety about certain environments or monsters happens as a result of the adventures.

Look, going into a dungeon is a stressful situation for anyone. You’ve got things like horrific monsters, the impenetrable darkness around you, food (or lack thereof), even your own team mates to worry about, as well as any other factors you can imagine that could be remotely connected to these. If your heroes reach too high of a level of stress, they break down — and generally the situation spirals downward from there. If one person breaks, it has an effect on the other party members, and after that it doesn’t take much for the undead horrors, blood cultists, rotting pig-men and other lovely beasties down there to tear you apart.

And when they die, they stay dead.

One misstep and this game will punish you. In fact even when there are no missteps, this game will punish you. It’s a very heavy RNG (Random Number Generator) game, which is gamer-language for “luck.” Therefore you can have great RNG or bad RNG — despite any preparation or how solidly put together you think your party is.

If you’ve played this game before, you’ll understand when I say: “I’ve had luckier runs in this game with a motley group of level zeroes with NO HEALER than with a carefully constructed group of Level 3’s.” As my older brother and I used to say back in the day, when we’d play a game and for all practical purposes we should have succeeded/survived a situation, “The Game just decides [that it wins and we lose].”

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More than once I’ve envisioned tossing my computer out the window thanks to what can be chalked up as “bad RNG,” but I’ve come to understand that that is a major factor in the fun — without difficult times, we cannot compare successful or otherwise “Eh, could’ve been worse” situations. When you experience success in this game, when shit actually goes as planned (or you just downright get good RNG), it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had from a game since beating Dragon Age: Origins and making decisions that gave me the ending I wanted.

I haven’t even touched on the presentation. Perhaps what wraps Darkest Dungeon together so solidly is the dark, grimy art style, with heavy black lines and a slightly unfinished illustrative look. The minimalist, two-frame action animation works to such an effect that I had never previously imagined possible, and on top of it all we have an excellent soundtrack that succeeds, thoroughly, in cultivating a gloomy and often hopeless atmosphere.

This game gives you a sense of true Lovecraftian Horror; that humanity, despite all its best efforts and accomplishments, is utterly powerless in the face of cosmic evils. It’s not that the universe hates us, no, it exhibits something much, much worse:

Indifference.

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And if you spend enough time thinking about it, insignificance.

Overall, I sense that I’ll one day get fed up with bad RNG, but otherwise this game is a tremendous experience and has helped me grow in terms of storytelling. Whenever I write about adventurers (in a dungeon setting or otherwise), I’ll be paying as much attention to the Stress Meter as their hunger, bathroom and health gauges.

Top 5 Sword Fights in Fantasy Films

Sword fights are awesome.

They’re a top draw when it comes to fantasy, as the sword symbolizes ye olde times.To many they symbolize honor, chivalry, and good old fashioned adventure.

While fiction and film have certainly romanticized what is essentially a glorified death knife, there remains a special place in the minds of many for the respect held toward those who’ve mastered (or at least look like they have mastered) a trusty blade. Even though they DO NOT make a *SHING* sound when drawn from the scabbard.

The following is a short list of the top sword-fight scenes in fantasy films. However, a few rules are to be followed for this specific list:

  • *must use swords – that means Martial Arts are for another list
  • *must have a fantasy element to the story
  • *non-animated scenes/characters (sorry Anime). That also rules out a couple of my other favorites from videogames — so that, too, will have to make another list someday

Also, to add some depth in measuring the value of these fights, I’m implementing a scale for various aspects of each fight. They go as follows:

Badassery/Tension: 1 to 5
Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 1 to 5
Fun Factor: 1 to 5
Style: 1 to 5

They shouldn’t need much explanation. The Badassery/Tension scale is meant to measure how much fear we feel for the characters, how serious the situation is, how high the stakes are. Efficiency/Choreography means how believable the fight is — too often are sword fights flashy and silly. The Fun Factor is for the overall enjoyment of the action — the environment in which the combatants are fighting, why they’re fighting, and (rarely) the banter.

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  • The Princess Bride

This is a classic, light-fantasy movie adored by generations. Since 1987 sick little boys have had their grandfathers come into their room and show them this movie about unforgettable characters, chocolate-coated miracles, and true love. No really, if this movie is on your “I’ll get to it list,” you have homework.

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The first fight scene, between Inigo Montoya and The Man in Black, is one as much of banter as of blades, and for tha reason the Fun Factor and Style ratings are high up there. The movie itself is a bit dated, with a score that sounds like it was performed on a synth keyboard (something not unusual for movies of the age, I mean, come on, man, it was the 80s) and an environment that is obviously the confines of a stage — all ends up detracting a bit from the Tension/Badassery as well as Choreography scores, but not unsatisfactorily so. The fight is still great – just not for actual fighting itself.

Badassery/Tension: 2 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 4

  • Troy

So Troy gets a bad rap for its extensive list of historical inaccuracies, plenty of which can be looked up in a heartbeat. The artistic liberties taken with putting together this movie, in addition to it largely being based on a myth, makes for adequate Fantasy criteria if you ask me. I still count it among my most enjoyed Ancient War movies on account of the excellent soundtrack and good action, but fewer moments are as memorable to me as the opening fight between Nimbled-Footed Achilles and Boagrius the Lacking a Title.

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The fight is actually a bit unsatisfying in it’s own Ong Bak or Raiders of the Lost Ark sort of way, but that adds heavily to the scores since it’s something of a bold move in cinema to show a fight like this. There was something of a buildup regarding the prowess of each character, though not much — it’s all in the music, and of course anyone who’s heard of Achilles before and that whole near-invulnerability thing. This fight gets a high score in three of the elements and a low in one for the same reason: it’s over too fast. The situation is tense thanks to the music, the (ahem) strike is wicked, the style is unique, but it’s over in a fraction of the time of the build-up.

Badassery/Tension: 4 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 1 | Style: 4

  • The 13th Warrior

Back in the olden days, when it was acceptable to cast a man of Spanish descent as an Arab, The 13th Warrior took us on a largely unbelievable journey from the sands of the Mediterranean to twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. If you’re into Vikings squinting their eyes at monotheists and fighting off bearskin-wearing Neanderthals, then this movie is for you.

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There are a number of good fights to be had in this flick, but my most memorable is fight between the character Hergerd the Joyous and Angus the Red-Haired Giant. This fight ranks in the top-five because there is serious tension in the air — by the time this fight rolls around, we’ve long-since come to utterly adore Hergerd, and as it turns out the fight is all part of scheme. What it lacks in style it makes up in efficiency, and the actual purpose of the fight makes the result all the sweeter.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 4 | Fun Factor: 3 | Style: 2

 

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And you thought that first Monty Python reference was just for fun. No way, the fight between King Arthur and the Black Knight goes into the mix because it’s downright unforgettable. Like much of the movie, it’s ridiculous, and that is the point.

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The tension is pretty much non-existent – the contrast of dramatic music and King Arthur’s calm, self-assured expression results in us having pretty much no fear for the character, and the choreography is expectedly silly as well. However, I never would have thought that seeing someone dismembered would be so funny, and as a child when first viewing this I was rolling on the floor. The fact that movie producers who attempt to do something similar to this will immediately be accused for paying homage or outright plagiarism, which maxes out the style score.

Badassery/Tension: 1 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 2 | Fun Factor: 5 | Style: 5

  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

I can still remember seeing this in theaters. I was nearly free of High School and had heard very little this Johnny Depp guy, though at the time I was rather familiar with the work of Hans Zimmer (the film’s music composer, considered among the best in the industry). There is a subtle use of melody and rhythm during the, to me, most remarkable fight in the movie and one of the most coolest fights in cinema.

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There’s a lot of stuff happening here. As an audience, we’re not quite sure whether Jack is someone to root for, while at the same time William is painted as the Goody Goody hero, but the class of character between the two makes for an interesting dynamic. What we have is more or less a conflict between agents of Order and Chaos. There’s something animalistic about Jack Sparrow when juxtaposed to Will Turner, even something vaguely sexual in the manner he wields his sword – which no doubt helped get the fan-girls all riled up.

Between the music, the choreography – timed well to the music – the time spent to have us already invested in the characters, the end result is a fight that, while not exactly remarkable, ends up being really really enjoyable to watch.

Badassery/Tension: 5 |  Efficiency/Choreography of Fight: 5 | Fun Factor: 4 | Style: 3

 

*** Honorable Mentions ***

  • Star Wars Episode 4 and Episode 1

As much as the Star Wars “Prequels” has something of an infamous reputation, there’s something about the concept of the Duel of the Fates showdown that’s a lot deeper than I perceived it on my first viewing. The outcome of the fight between Qui Gon Jin and Darth Maul – essentially a battle over what would essentially happen to the young and impressionable Anakin Skywalker, could have quite possibly altered the the timelines of Star Wars saga. Personally, I like to think that Darth Maul might have gained stewardship of Anakin, and perhaps a Reverse Darth Vader might have been produced as a result.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 2004

I actually am not actually particularly fond of this movie. I am, however, hugely admiring of the source material, and I grew up on a 1979 animation of the same name. That doesn’t detract from my appreciation of the swordplay in the most modern adaptation. Jadis is an interesting character, though she’s a bit one-dimensional (she’s a children’s book villain, what do you expect), and part of this is shown in the duel between Jadis and Peter during the ending battle scene. She’s got style, she’s got finesse, she’s got skill — too bad she hasn’t Fuzzy Jesus on her side.

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Got your favorite sword-fight scenes not listed here? Let me know in the comments, I’m always open to exploring new stuff.

In the future: Top 5 Martial Arts Fights, Top Five Sword Fights (animated) and others!

Two Opposing Crime Comedies

It is interesting to have a specified niche genre of dark crime comedy. These are the sorts of stories that take us into the underworld of criminal affairs, where the threat of death (or worse) seems to be a rather prevalent theme, yet things are light-hearted enough where we laugh most of the time.

Easily enough, morbid topics are flipped into funny ones.

fc64a43b176b81970da1d47ddc2b56c1I recently watched Snatch for the first time, as well as my second viewing of Pulp Fiction. Let us discuss and compare the successes and failures of these films as stories.

In terms of gritty scenes too-insane to actually be considered plausibly real, both these movies have both in abundance. As viewers, we’re not only put in at position to see things from the perspectives of criminals, but actually relate to them. After all, criminals are also human beings, however coked up or cold blooded or greed-driven they may be, with motivations and (sometimes) personalities. The more interesting characters are the ones whom you come to “know,” and end up rooting for — despite them being one of a slew of bad guys.

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If you watch this movie for the first time, place bets on which of these is the good guy.

As something of a novice Tarantino viewer, I actually know next-to-nothing about Guy Ritchie (Snatch), though some light research showed he directed the more recent Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

The movies were OKAY.

Setting aside their other works, though, comparing Pulp Fiction and Snatch as standalone films shows more than a few things in common, yet they manage to stand apart.

Both films are, of course, crime thrillers. Both feature the perspectives of a rather extensive cast, each interwoven in the overall story arc. There’re quite a few moments of morbid comedy (also known as black or dark comedy), leaving us smiling and laughing at the utter misfortune of more than a few characters. Perhaps most of all, both flicks have a rigged boxing match as one of its central plot elements.

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Certainly there are significant differences between the two movies as well — the narrative style contrasts quite a bit, with Pulp Fiction doing the whole “show don’t tell” thing, while Snatch does a helluva lotta telling. Turkish, one of the two “good guys” (the best among the criminals to which we can relate and root for, I suppose) of Snatch, also plays the part the occasional narrator. Hearing Jason Stathom spoonfeed us plot and character details is a stylistic choice, I’m thoroughly aware, and as I endeavor to consume more and more varied media, I’ve been slowly coming to the conclusion that British films really enjoy their protagonist-narration.

Pulp Fiction, conversely, has no narration at all, but there is no lack of talking. I know I referred to Pulp Fiction as doing a lot of showing, not telling, and this can be done despite the preponderance of dialog. Tarantino movies tend to have profound or, at the very least, above-average ambitions when it comes to what characters say to each other. People in his films – Pulp Fiction being no exception – talk like complex, intelligent adults, bringing up concepts, debates, and philosophies that I wish I could have on a casual basis.

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This makes for interesting characters in between action scenes, and let me tell you, the action and tension in both these movies is great, but action can only take a story so far. If nobody cares about the characters it doesn’t matter what happens to them — and we care about characters who stand out, whether it’s through profound dialog or otherwise.

Certainly in some cases, the utter lack of dialog can make a character. Take Clive Owen’s performance in The Bourne Identity. He barely says a goddamn word but gets a lot of screen time, and we really get the impression of what kind of person he’s like.

clive assassinBack to Snatch, it’s a fun movie, and it was one of those movies I’d heard of more than ten years ago and finally got around to seeing. An old high-school friend went so far as to say it was the best movie ever, but then we know how teenagers are prone to hyperbole. Regardless, an aura of mystery always surrounded the title; what could such a movie with such a peculiar name have that could make it someone’s “all time favorite”?

To put it simply, after ten years of not seeing it, I finally did, and I’m not really sure what the big deal is. The overall story arc feels incomplete, almost as though the budget ran out before filming (even editing) was completed. Like I said, though, it’s fun — the characters are fun, and yes there’re great bits of dialog to be found as well, but by the time the credits abruptly rolled, I found myself throwing my arms in the air.

What, precisely, was the point of this?

Pulp Fiction, with its nonlinear storytelling (something of a Tarantinoism, so I’ve heard), memorable characters and extremely quotable moments, stands quite apart. A character is seen shot dead, and it’s much to my disappointment (and, presumably, that of the audience), as we’ve come to enjoy him, or at minimum get to know him, thoroughly. Then the story jumps back in time, and we get one final scene with him — it’s almost as though the writers of Pulp Fiction enjoyed John Travolta’s character too much to let him just be killed off.

I’ve yet to watch a Tarantino film that I didn’t enjoy, though their roughness sometimes leaves me a little worn. I end up saying things to myself such as “I won’t be seeing that again any time soon.” But then again, I’ve been feeling a bit in the mood for some Kill Bill. post-19458-Quentin-Tarantino-Game-of-Thro-mRur

Two Desceptively Good Horror Movies

I’m going to talk about movies that came out years ago.

A spoiler warning would be superfluous.

I first saw The Descent in theaters sometime around it’s American release, which would mark my first viewing around 2006. I remember liking it then.

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It’s a horror movie, and to that end you instantly know there are going to be some familiar tropes. Aesthetically pleasing characters (a group of them, in fact, imagine that), a secret held amongst the members of this seemingly tightly-nit group of friends, and of course the “hey lets get ourselves in a dangerous scenario” cliche.

Not long ago, I found myself treated to The Cabin in the Woods, an utterly trope-ridden film that seems to have set out to do that purposefully. Cabin in the Woods is a critique and deconstruction of horror films — forcing us to address what we like and what we don’t like about the genre.

Lately I’ve been increasingly respectful of Joss Whedon’s work.

To that end, the movie itself is cleverly written in that there’s almost nothing original about what you see in it. However the manner in which it is tied together is rather revolutionary; personally I like to think that it offers an explanation for why horror movies exist. The cliches, the tropes, the familiar themes – it’s all part of a cyclic ritual to please bloodthirsty gods.

hand

Whose hand is this? I’d venture a vote that it’s yours.

One might go so far as to suggest that the “old gods” (a clear homage to H.P. Lovecraft) in the film are metaphors for the audience. We as viewers have arrived to witness a show, whether at a cinema or taking the effort to play the movie at home. We demand retribution for the crimes committed by the various characters, we demand mercy for the innocent, and most of all, we demand blood.

As the viewers, we decide whether a film exists (is playing) or not (turning it off, and the stories of the characters never play out and remain suspended in paused limbo forever). We also ensure the continued real-world Hollywood industry by repeatedly paying money to see these recycled movies at the box office.

I’ll tell you one thing I look for when watching a movie, particularly those in the horror genre.

Something different.

Something that’s more than the same elements of a story rearranged with slightly different faces and a slightly different biome. Cabin in the Woods manages to not only bring forth everything that is familiar, because that’s mostly what horror flicks — particularly those from Hollywood — seem to have become.

Cabin

I share their expression whenever see a poster or commercial for the next scary flick.

I’m not sure how many times I could re-watch this movie (I’ve read other reviewers say they can and have quite a bit), but I can easily say I count it as extremely memorable for its clever subversion of tropes and critique of not only the producers of these kinds of movies, but the consumers as well. It is, as people in Dungeons & Dragons circles call it, meta and thoroughly self-aware, however it never once breaks the fourth wall.

Go see it.

Back to The Descent (2005). Now here’s a deceptively good movie, if Rotten Tomatoes has anything to say about it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s got familiar horror movie elements, but I would like to emphasize that it’s not a Hollywood production. The people behind this one came from across the Pond, and while filming was done in the U.K., the setting for the story takes place in South Carolina, USA.

Much like how The Cabin in the Woods utilizes familiar tropes, we see a group of close-knit friends (though all-female, which is an interesting production choice, as there’s an absence of the typical alpha male character) delving into a dangerous situation of their own volition.

Guess how many live.

Guess how many live.

They’re adventurers, in possession of what is suggested to be extensive caving experience. They’re a group of physically capable people, and for once they look the part. Unlike the rail-thin plastic dolls we see so oft-depicted on the silver screen like in Charlie’s Angels. Or most every movie containing an Action Girl.

Naturally, the characters discover more than they could have expected down there. Between claustrophobia, the way out being sealed by a cave-in (resulting of course in a “no way to go but forward” scenario), and injuries from plain old-fashioned accident, they encounter what really attracted me to this movie at first: the creatures.

Troglodytes, subterranean hominids that look and act like flightless bat-human hybrids. With a sickly pallor and blindness to boot, they rely on acute hearing and pointy teeth to get around down there, and the creatures themselves were conceptualized a little more thoroughly than your average monster. There’re hints of tribal organization, with females and motherly vindication being witnessed. These aren’t mole people, either.

But the creatures are not what have me thinking highly of this movie. In fact, they aren’t a hugely scary element, although you do find yourself fearing for the characters.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

The jump-scare reveal was pretty awesome, though.

What makes this movie interesting is the change that occurs in the protagonist, and ties nicely with the double entendre of the title. Sure, the ladies go and descend into a deep dark cave, but the main character – Sarah – also undergoes something of a descent of her own.

You see, in the opening scenes, we witness the tragic loss of Sarah’s husband and daughter in a car accident. The movie takes place a year later, after she’s been subject to psychotherapeutic treatment (evident in medications she’s seen taking during the one-year-later reunion with her adventurer friends). We also see that she’s prone to nightmares and, possibly, hallucinations, and as one of her friends points out, among the host of obstacles one might encounter in the Underdark are …well, hallucinations.

Naturally, the first time she sees one of the creatures her account is immediately dismissed by her peers and the expected “I told you so,” moment occurs later. But Sarah’s descent into madness is intriguing because it allows her to survive the coming obstacles.

A normal person might scream their head off after tumbling into a pool of flesh slurry. A normal person might be too overcome with guilt to mercy-kill her wounded, immobile friend before getting eaten alive by man bats. A normal person might freeze in panic at the sight of her friends being picked off one at a time.

But Sarah isn’t normal; to put it in less gentle terms, her mind snapped like a dry and brittle twig sometime between the trauma of her husband’s family and the bloody deaths of her friends. She thus underwent a sort of metamorphosis, into a human animal, arguably as savage as the troglodytes around her, and it is this metamorphosis that allows her to survive.

If you're cool then you know what this is. If you don't, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

If you’re cool then you know what this is. If you don’t, you can get an idea form the title of the card.

Add in the drama of a certain betrayal that I’d rather not spell out here (because if you still haven’t seen the movie, what I’ve talked about in this review actually doesn’t spoil all that much), and you’ve got a story that really stands out in the horror genre.

One of the better, modern horror flicks I’ve seen in awhile, and I’ve always felt it deserved more love.

Oh and there’s a sequel. You needn’t concern yourself with it.

Impressions: Citizen Kane

The last time I saw Citizen Kane might have been about sixty-five years after its release. With a fuzzy memory I recall seeing it in a dark room at the far corner of the miniscule college campus I attended at the time. The Art of Film, probably one of the best classes I had ever taken.

There, us pupils were subjected to such cinematic pieces as Blue Velvet, Laurel & Hardy’s The Music Box, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Citizen Kane.

It’s also no secret that any self-styled movie critic could hardly call themselves such without watching this, so I’m fully aware that there are a thousand and one reviews, impressions, and otherwise “why this movie is good/bad” articles to be found out there. I’m not going to waste your time telling you what the movie is about, because if you haven’t seen it it means you need to; not simply as a consumer, but as an aspiring writer, film-maker, story-teller; whatever you choose to call yourself.

I was prompted to rewatch this movie when a friend showed me clips of a movie known as The Room, by Tommy Wiseau. Entertainment Weekly has called it “The Citizen Kane of bad movies.”

tommy wiseau

With a $6 million budget. Somehow.

These days, The Room is something of a cult classic, a title the likes of which I had heard whispers and – despite the pleading of a trusted associate whose opinion I trust – have no intention of seeing. CinemaSins, one of my favorite YouTube channels, does a good job at tearing it part – in eight minutes or less.

Watching Citizen Kane again, I couldn’t help but recall only fragments of the plot; sure there’s significance to name “Rosebud,” and before firing up the movie I remembered a few bits Spinning Newspaper-styled montage. But I found myself re-enjoying what I suspected to possibly be an overrated movie.

It’s not secret that Citizen Kane is considered a great piece of film in most circles, but as I found myself describing to a friend with whom I shared it, it’s not just about consuming the media. For me, it’s about learning the language to describe why it’s good, to appreciate the more subtle aspects of filming, such as the cinematography. The story of Citizen Kane is masterfully told in part because it transitions between a multitude of perspectives – not one of them being Kane himself – instead from those of various important people in his life.

And the cinematic transitions between the scenes shows a higher degree of planning and artfulness than I tend to see in movies these days, whose primary concern is – without argument or shame – focused on special effects over substance and story.

I’ve been toying with this very concept; to write a novel (series) following a character whose perspective is almost never written. What s/he does and says is conveyed entirely through the eyes of close friends, family, co-workers, whatever. If pulled off well, this is tremendous storytelling because it leaves the true feelings and thoughts of the central character-in-question up to interpretation – leaving more than a few things up for debate and discussion.

A successful story is not one that simply entertains, but leaves you thinking after the book is closed, after the screen fades to black, after the game credits begin to roll. Double plus good if you can share these experiences with other people.

Watching this also prompted me to refresh my memory on the central actor, Mr. Orson Welles himself. He is perhaps most remembered from rolls such as The Godfather, and the radio drama of War of the Worlds.

war-of-the-worlds-by-orson-welles

This is priceless. The little Nihilist in me is pleased.

But what I feel like not enough people know is that is final role in film was the voice of Unicron, a planet-eating robot from Transformers: The Movie (1986).

Robot Badass

A movie composed of animated robots set to a backdrop of 80s hair metal. Count me the fuck in.

Long live the legacy of an actor that has left more than a huge impression on the film industry, that I fear not nearly enough people know about. Do yourself a favor and learn more about Orson Welles.

Review: Conan the Barbarian (2011)

God dammit, don’t end your sentences in prepositions, and more to the point, this “undreamed of age” was dreamed up 80 years ago.

So let’s get something straight.

I tried my hardest to watch this without actually comparing it to the 1982 film of the same name.

I tried to watch this without thinking about Robert E. Howard’s published writings.

Up until the credits rolled, I tried even to imagine whether the movie would be any good if all the Hyborian names and references were taken out, leaving it as it’s own standalone fantasy adventure.

None of these attempted self-imposed mind tricks yielded a positive result, however, on account of all the other shortcomings. Even if the name of our “hero” were not Conan, you would be asking yourself why they put movie this together.

So what this movie isn’t:

It’s not a continuation of the 1982 + ’84 Schwarzenegger films. It’s not an adaptation of any of Howard’s original source material. It doesn’t really follow any of the plotlines, in fact (not that the ’82 movie did, but that one at least was sort of an amalgamation of scattered stories put together to form something new and unique), though there was reference to having “killed the elephant man” or some nonsense, which I can only assume is an allusion to The Tower of the Elephant, but in that story, killing the “elephant guy” wasn’t some barbaric, swashbuckling conquest. It was a mercy killing.

This is essentially pissing on the source material.

What this movie is:

An action-packed adventure full of easily-forgotten one-liners, exposition via villainous verbosity, and a plot that comes to a screeching halt the instant you start asking questions. There’re some neat special effects, gratuitous gore, and less-than-memorable characters.

“Quick,” said one producer, “cast Conan’s best friend to a black guy.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Conan kills some black warriors in the next scene. Recast the loyal sidekick as a black dude so people think we aren’t as racist as the original writer.”

Because, if you know anything about the original source material concerning not only Conan, but others of Robert E. Howard’s creation, it may come as no surprise that Howard (along with his long-time writer friend, H.P. Lovecraft) were, in Stephen King’s eloquent words:

“… Lovecraft was, by all accounts, both snobbish and painfully shy (a galloping racist as well, his stories full of sinister Africans and the sort of scheming Jews my Uncle Oren would get worried about after four or five beers), the kind of writer who maintains a voluminous correspondence but gets along poorly with others in person—were he alive today, he’d likely exist most vibrantly in various internet chatrooms….”

I’m actually a huge fan of Howard’s writing. The wordcraft turned out to be hugely influential in my own prose, however the subject matter, at times, got about as ignorant as Lovecraft.

The story of Conan (2011) is so utterly try-hard that if one didn’t know better, one might suspect it written by multiple people who couldn’t agree on what would make a good plot…

3Writers

So even if I set aside my annoyance for barely acknowledging the writings of Howard, I have to at least try to enjoy the movie for what it is instead: a fantasy film with swordplay, monsters, heroes/villains and magic. Those are usually the components of a fantasy I’d be interested in.

The fight choreography was passable. There’s a lot of flashy swordplay that is supposed to make Conan look like master fighter, but in truth I got the impression I got was just some dude with pecs being handed a sword. Not to say this athleticism is easy (or surprising, as we all know what’s seen on TV/movies is by it’s very nature, flashier).

But very few movies measure up to the most interesting swordplay in a movie like this, in the opinion of yours truly, like in Troy.

Don’t get me started on all the problems and inaccuracies of that movie. In spite of them, though, I was able to enjoy the film for its other redeeming factors. Conan the Barbarian doesn’t really have any.

Well, except for Ron Perlman, maybe. But they sorta get rid of him early so it’s no fun anyway.

Monsters? We have a tentacle beast whose name, the Dweller (a veritable eldritch abomination which, considering the Hyborian connections with Lovecraft works, is at least not out of place) we can only know from grunted, contrived dialog.

Conan falls into the pit with his plot device sidekick and looks upon the pink orc guy he saw as a child.

“Great, a feast for my sword,” says C-man.

“No, a feast for the Dweller!” bellows the pink orc. Enter monster in elaborate, poorly designed room.

What other monsters are there? Orcs, I guess. Pink orcs. Oh wait no, maybe those’re just big angry sub-humans.

How about the heroes, then? Well like in Roger Ebert’s review, it’s kinda hard to like or relate to Conan in this depiction. I suppose that makes him an anti-hero, which is fine. Anti-heroes make great characters, like Batman, Guts (from Berserk), pretty much any character played by Clint Eastwood, and even James Bond. What do they all have in common? A general disregard for the usual things that most “heroes” care for, such as a desire for peace (in fact most anti-heroes are rather violent), but they’re not evil. Not really. In fact what makes them anti-heroes (and not just villains) is the fact that they kinda do a lot of good.

Conan doesn’t really give that impression at all. He’s a swashbuckler, pirate, thief, all-around tough guy who talks down to women and eschews the use of words when a sword would do (though he still talks too much in this movie as far as I’m concerned, and Conan as seen in Howard’s writings is actually quite long-winded). Schwarzenegger’s Conan was also a swashbuckler and thief and all-around free man that otherwise can’t quite fit into “civilized society,” but he wasn’t a dick.

There’s a difference between coming off as a badass and coming off as a douchebag.

Jason Momoa certainly looks the part of a savage warrior, that’s for sure. Indeed his character is, despite other things mentioned, closer to the original Conan. I think I preferred Momoa as Khal Drogo, though.

The villains were cookie-cutter characters you’ve seen a hundred times already, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t a bastardized re-hashing of Thulsa Doom’s rise to evil-kinghood. The Evil King seeks to put together an ancient mask of power in order to bring back his dead wife, who was some years ago burned at the stake for witchery. Their daughter, who follows in her mothers footsteps, continues said witchcraft but only really employs it once throughout the entire movie. And what’s the result?

Sand people.

Oh right and she can taste the “purity” of someone’s blood, too, because plot.

This movie left a bad taste in my mouth, and it’s not that I was expecting something great or different, I was just expecting something less… average. The effects are neat at times, I suppose, but overall what I saw when watching this film was a bland, boring world that barely passes for fantasy with a couple of names of people and places inserted into it. Barely any time is spent just … observing things, so there’s no sense of culture in this world. Just movie sets and rendered landscapes between fights.

By far, though, the biggest issue is that there is no character arc.

To illustrate my point, let’s now do a direct comparison between the characters of 1982 Conan and the 2011 Conan, ignoring special effects, acting ability, budget, or number of horses killed during production.

  • 1982 Conan
    • Started off as a speechless child who, by all accounts, was “normal.” No noticeable attitude problems, except perhaps a hatred for ice fish.
    • Lost both parents in the raid that destroyed “his people,” where a lot of emphasis is placed on his desire for revenge. Like, the dialog-less scenes with little more than music to extrapolate the emotions in play tells volumes.
    • Went on to push the Wheel of Pain in a circle for ten years, no doubt instilling a sense of stubbornness
    • Fell in love, but set it aside to pursue revenge
    • Got killed as a result (spoiler)
    • Got resurrected (spoiler), and afterward began the long trend of contemplation as well as action
    • Lost his love (like, forever, none of that Marvel Comics shit where people don’t stay dead)
    • Achieved vengeance, but at great cost
    • Doing so, however, seems to have also averted a world-wide upheaval
    • Went on to a life of debauchery before finally becoming king ‘by his own hand.’
  • 2011 Conan
    • Child-Conan has an attitude from the get-go. He’s supposedly above average and quite the teen-aged savage. Very good at not crushing quail eggs
    • Lost parent, but once his father is ‘out of the way’ the plot can continue
    • Makes the beast with two backs with the damsel in distress who passes for a love interest
    • Kills the antagonist evil king guy as well as the evil witch daughter
    • Says goodbye to the damsel
    • Goes on to kill, thieve, and otherwise inconvenience people

The 1982 Conan has a complex and interesting character arc. He faces off against Thulsa Doom and his elites multiple times, and the one failure he suffers really hits hard. But the friends responsible for bringing him back are believably doing so because they care. He grows, rises, falls, rises again.

2011 Conan never changes. He doesn’t grow. In a fight against the evil king, Khalar Zym (really?), Conan lost. Sure the witch threw magic and poison-tipped-weapons-of-zero-consequence at him, but he lost, and he’s bummed out for about five minutes. The damsel sets herself up to be captured by stupidly running away from him when he’s asleep. He pursues – with absolutely no obstacles between himself and the obvious skull mountain – kills the people, saves the girl, and rides off with the mountain collapsing (for no reason) behind him.

He’s the exact same character from the beginning of the movie to the end, which is fundamentally boring, and the real reason books like Ready Player One ended up being terrible.

If your character doesn’t grow, or learn something, or change his mind or attitude about something, what the hell is the point of the story?

Anyway, for a movie I didn’t actually like, this is a long review. If you’re even half the fantasy enthusiast I am, save yourself the trouble and skip this film. That’s why I spend so much time writing about it – this is a film on par with those awful Dungeons & Dragons flicks that nobody is glad exists. Movies like this are an insult to my field.

If you’re going to use the name, you may as well attempt a retelling of any of the myriad adventures already written that aren’t half bad.

Jesse out.